Sometimes a character feels flat or boring or somehow a bit vague, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. Coming up with a cast of completely new, unique characters to write about for each book is no small feat! I recently had two separate developmental edits where the authors weren’t happy with their male love interests. I remembered I’d started writing some ideas for a series on developmental edits and revisions, and when I dug up this list I found it helped me pinpoint what was missing from each of these fellas, and together we brainstormed how to deepen them. So here are my top five suggestions for developing characters! This is focused on protagonists, but going through these aspects would help any side character and even the antagonists feel like real people.
#5 Misconception & change. Protagonists should start their journey with a false belief about themselves or the world, based on experiences they’ve had. Throughout the story, they’ll make choices based on this false belief, and in the end they’ll learn and embrace the truth. This misconception powers the theme. Some examples: identity and self-worth, trusting others, denial about grief, forgiveness.
#4 Noble intentions. This is a big part of what makes us root for our protagonist. They want something good and just and true. Maybe it’s something that will help others. Maybe it’s something they deserve. You can usually figure this out by asking: what do they love? This makes them human and likable. It has to be something they’re willing to work and sacrifice for.
#3 Willing to sacrifice. I believe one of the most important elements of a good climax is sacrifice. The protagonist must give up or be willing to give up something important to them as part of their noble intentions. This could be a physical sacrifice, such as fighting an impossible fight or jumping in front of a bullet; it could be a sacrifice of some material possession that means a lot to them; it could be time, ambition, status, pride…you name it. Often the sacrifice is related to the misconception—the protagonist realizes that they’ve been seeking the wrong thing and they’re willing to give it up for a greater truth. If it’s a romance, at least one of the people needs to make or be willing to make a sacrifice for the other person.
#2 Proactive. Protagonists need to be active players in their own stories. They need to constantly be making choices and dealing with the consequences, good or bad, of those choices. Things can’t just happen to them. They need to take charge, and their actions need to make their situation better or worse. Making mistakes, making things worse, is fantastic and usually necessary since we don’t want perfect characters. As long as their noble intentions lead them to make active decisions.
#1 Clear motivation, even for bad decisions. Even if readers don’t agree with the character’s choices, they need to understand why the character makes them. Something about their backstory or their worldview will inform their decisions. If there’s an obvious possible solution to a problem but your character doesn’t choose it, explain why. Characters can’t do things just because you need them to for the plot to happen. In order to feel true, every decision should be rooted in logic, emotion, or both.
So there you have it, my magic formula (ha!) for realistic characters who won’t put readers to sleep…or make them want to throw the book across the room.
Stay tuned for more developmental tips!
1 thought on “My Top 5 Characterization Tips”
Great ideas. They sound very true